Commissioned by Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Chester Music is the publisher of this work in all territories except Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, China, countries of the former Czechoslovakia, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Romania, Hungary and the whole territory of the former USSR, where the copyright is held by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM).
Lutoslawski’s four symphonies reflect the course of his development rather neatly. The First Symphony, composed from 1941 to 1947, closes his first style period; it became a causecélèbre when Lutoslawski was criticized by the Soviet-dominated Polish government for “formalism” (i.e. music that is modern, or that dares to think for itself, or that dullard politicians can’t understand at first hearing). The work was banned in 1949 and was not heard again for ten years. Lutoslawski waited twenty years to write another symphony, and then he used the Second Symphony (1966-67) to consolidate the discoveries of his third period on a large orchestral scale. The Third Symphony (1981-83) was the first major work in the late style period to capture public attention. The new Fourth Symphony, arriving after more than decade of refining this late manner, reflects the lessons of the intervening works, especially such gems as the Partita for violin and piano (1984), Chain 2 for violin and orchestra (1984-85), and the Piano Concerto (1988). All these works have been heard on Los Angeles Philharmonic programmes, most recently the Piano Concerto, performed by Krystian Zimerman in January 1991).
In its first decade of existence, the Third Symphony has enjoyed an almost unheard-of level of public success for a modern work: three recordings (by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; by the Berlin Philharmonic with the composer conducting: and by the Chicago Symphony under Daniel Barenboim) and literally hundreds of live performances all over the world. Undoubtedly public acceptance has been sped along by the Third Symphony’s spectacular orchestration, its big, memorable tune, and its moments of high drama. The Fourth Symphony is quite different; it is much shorter, and its rhetoric is less extrovert, its colours darker, its drama more somber. The Fourth Symphony is equally as compelling, however, through its sheer eloquence and its almost elegiac gravity.
Lutoslawski was asked in a 1992 interview for the German monthly NZ, how his symphonies relate to the symphonic tradition. He replied “ It is a question of form. I have thought al to about large-scale closed forms. I was not always happy with the…Brahmsian tradition. In Brahms there are two main movements, the first and the fourth. In my experience as a listener, that is too much . Too much substance within [a short span of] time. I believe that the ideal relationship is achieved in Haydn’s symphonies. And I thought that perhaps I could find some other way to achieve this balance. My solution is to view the first movement as preparation for the main movement. The first movement must engage, interest, it must – ‘intrigue’, as they say in English. But it must not give complete satisfaction. It must make us hungry and, finally, even impatient. That is the right moment to introduce the main movement. That is my solution, and I think it works rather well.”
In one way or another, this two-part format - preparation, main event – lies at the heart of many of Lutoslawski’s works over the past thirty years, including the Second Symphony (whose two movements bear the explicit titles ‘Hesitant’ and ‘Direct’) and the Third Symphony (introduction, preparatory first movement, large main movement, third movement comprising lyrical aftermath, brief coda). The Fourth Symphony presents an example that is both clear-cut in its two-movement layout and unprecedentedly subtle in the way in which the two movements relate to each other to create a single, overarching musical experience. Its first movement adopts a favourite ploy for engaging our attention while at the same time frustrating our desire for continuity: alternating two contrasting kinds of music. The first of these, a lyrical melody against a gentle, chordal background, is first exposed by the clarinet, later by flute and clarinet together. Interposed between statements of this unfolding melody are mercurial interludes of faster, less predictable music. On its last appearance the lyrical music is taken up and extended by the strings until it culminates in an abortive attempt at a grand climax.
As promised, just at the moment when we grow impatient with the preparatory first movement, the main second movement arrives. This movement unfolds in three stages. The first section, dominated by running sixteenth-note figures, introduces a grave cantibile theme that will return for later development. The middle section is a sparkling orchestral texture that begins at the top of the orchestra and swells down through the ranks until, heralded by solo trumpet and a trio of trombones, it yields to the third section. Now the cantibile idea heard earlier returns in full force, gaining in urgency until it culminates in a powerful unison statement by the massed strings and brasses. As if there were no way forward from this frankly emotional climax, the music dissolves in dreamlike recollections, dwindling to a single note in the violas. A brief, brilliant coda brings the symphony to a close.
Lutoslawski’s Fourth Symphony was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The score bears the completion date 22 August 1992.
© Steven Stucky